Here's something you may not know about Harrison Ford: in 1968 he was a struggling young actor (youngish - he was 26) when the French director Jacques Demy picked him to star in his first Hollywood movie, Model Shop. Demy was on a roll: his delightful musicals The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort were among the most popular films to emerge from the French new wave, not just in Europe, but in North America too.
Ford had done a couple of bit roles in B movies and on TV, but that was it. He and Demy instantly hit it off and spent some months preparing the project. Unfortunately, unlike in France, in Hollywood the studio insisted on casting approval, and Demy was overruled. 2The head of the studio said forgET me, I had no future in this business," Ford recalled.
As rejections go this has to rate alongside the famous putdown of Fred Astaire ("Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little") and Howard Hughes' evaluation of Clark Gable's sex appeal: "That man's ears make him look like a taxi cab with both doors open".
Demy was persuaded to cast 2001 star Gary Lockwood - and Model Shop flopped, putting an end to his American career. As for Empire magazine's future "Biggest Movie Star of All-Time", he was forced to return to his hobby, carpentry, to make ends meet.
To be fair, Ford assumed gravity with maturity - he grew into himself. All credit to George Lucas and casting director Fred Roos for spotting his potential and casting him in, first, American Grafitti (1973), and four years later Star Wars (1977). Roos also cast him in supporting roles in Coppola's The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.
In retrospect it's easy to say that Han Solo changed everything, but it might not have turned out that way. Mark Hamill was a star for all of three minutes. Nor were any of Ford's immediate follow-ups successful (they include Heroes; Force 10 from Navarone; Hanover Street; The Frisco Kid and More American Graffiti).
It was a third role for George Lucas that consolidated his star persona in the public imagination. Indiana Jones: the archaeologist-adventurer with the hat, the whip, and the slightly sarcastic smile had been earmarked for Tom Selleck - but the producers of Magnum PI wouldn't give him leave of absence to film it. Instead Raiders of the Lost Ark turned Harrison Ford into a legitimate box office champ at the ripe old age of 39.
He wasn't a blue-eyed blond, and he wasn't Marlon Brando, but Ford had a surly grace under pressure that caught the public imagination. The indelible moment was surely the scene when Indy is faced with a terrifying master swordsman - pulls out his pistol and shoots him on the spot. Here was a pragmatic action hero whose dry understatement and wry humour saved the day.
Unlike the invincible machine-men Arnold Schwarzenegger would come to specialize in, Ford wasn't afraid to be afraid (of snakes, for instance). He's not impervious to danger, but he'll shrug it off and do what has to be done with a grunt and a groan, then moan about it afterwards. There is something reassuringly down to earth about such a man - in a strange way, he's quite a paternal figure. Indiana Jones is an old school, take-charge kind of guy, but he's as plain as his surname, and as laconic and world-weary as those black and white heroes your dad liked to watch: Wayne and Cooper and Bogart.
By the mid 80s Ford was involved in all five of the biggest money-spinners ever to come out of Hollywood (though you have to be sharp to catch his cameo in ET, written by his then wife Melissa Mathison.) He has stuck with minor variations on this tried and tested persona ever since. On the few occasions he's spread his wings, (as the manic inventor in The Mosquito Coast for example, or the brain damaged title role in Regarding Henry) the box office has suffered for it.
Ford's restraint has proved a mixed blessing. For all his well-earned reputation as a hands-on old pro, he hasn't always been a good judge of projects; flirting with the Michael Douglas role in Traffic, for instance, and turning down Syriana. Instead he made Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. He hasn't stretched convincingly, hasn't ventured into directing like Eastwood or Redford, or even marshaled his own material like that whippersnapper Tom Cruise.
Instead he's gone quietly about his business, giving the public what they want and doing what he does best - which is playing "Harrison Ford". It would be churlish to ask for more.
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